Holly Wofford is an Emmy nominated Executive Producer with doc/reality credits that include Survivor and American Ninja Warrior. She has travelled the globe working in difficult climates while navigating everything from Tsunami warnings to cast members on the verge of quitting the project.
Having worked with Holly in the past I knew she would have vital tips to share with the Pro Video Coalition community. I spoke with Holly to discuss life as an EP and lessons learned from her years in the business of telling the heartfelt stories of real people.
The full interview is below:
How did you get started in doc/reality?
From the age of 10 I knew I wanted to work in television. Growing up in small town Georgia, opportunities to learn about television production were non-existent. I constantly begged and pushed my parents to take me to movie sets around Georgia where I would watch and soak it all in. Eventually, I went to the University of Alabama where I graduated with honors with a TV and Film Production degree. From there I moved to Washington, DC intent on working for National Geographic. To my great disappointment, they weren’t hiring. This fateful moment sent me in another direction: from documentary to reality tv. I applied for a logging position on America’s Most Wanted. When asked if I proficiently knew the logging software I said, “…absolutely!” I got the job! But I’d never heard of the software and had never done any logging. On my first day I sat at my desk and tried to look busy. To my great luck I found a software manual in the desk drawer and once everyone left for the evening, I stayed until the sun rose the next morning and taught myself to log. Within 6 months I was producing reenactments. After almost 3 years in Washington I moved to Los Angeles where I landed a job on a brand new reality show, Survivor. From that point on, I didn’t look back.
You have had a long and varied career jumping between very different types of subject matter. What type of stories/content appeals most to you and why?
Personal and real stories with heart and depth appeal to me. I’m not interested in fake/scripted docuseries or other series that are produced with a heavy hand. I am most attracted to shows that put real people in extreme circumstances. I work hard to ensure my shows have genuine heart and redeeming value. American Ninja Warrior, for example, could strictly be a sporting competition, but by diving into the competitor’s personal stories, their families, their sacrifices, etc, it takes the sporting experience to a whole new level. Digging into the real people involved in any series whether it’s a hair competition like Shear Genius or an adventure survival series like The Island, it’s never just about the physical experience. It’s about what’s happening, how it’s affecting the participants and why.
Switching gears here. What types of mistakes do you see younger producers making early on in their careers?
We all make mistakes when were are just starting off in our careers. One mistake I frequently see across all departments is people wanting success, promotions or titles handed to them. People walk in the door and want to be the DP, editor, director or producer. But they don’t know the bites or shots they need to tell the story in the bay. That said, for those that want to work hard and put in the time to learn your craft, I absolutely encourage you to ask for what you are worth, push for promotions and aim for the grandest success. And women especially need to do this. I constantly see women being paid less for the same job. Whether male or female, we should all receive equal pay for equal work.
Couldn’t agree more. What should new producers be working towards? Clearly not a title bump.
Get experience under your belt! Work hard and learn everything you can about your craft. Not only is it rewarding, but it will ensure promotions and title bumps as your knowledge base demands it. For new producers interview skills are generally thin. They forget to ask the subject to incorporate the question in their answer. They interrupt or talk over the subject. They don’t take strong enough field notes. These are things that are learned and honed over time with experience. So get some! Also, I have to say one of my biggest pet peeves is when a producing team gets cocky about being on the producing team. Don’t do it. Remember, it takes every single department to create a successful show.
What advice do you have for doc/reality producers trying to make the jump to the Co-EP/EP level? How do the skill requirements as an EP differ from those of a producer in the field?
Being a Co-EP or EP means you are no longer just a producer of story. You are responsible for logistical, legal, safety and so much more. You are now a manager. You are also a problem solver. Everyday. All day. You gotta be the one with answers and to know the answers, you need experience.
If you are ready to make the jump to Supervising Producer or Co-EP, ask your superior if you can take on some of those duties. When you are being interviewed for a job, let them know you want to take on more responsibility with the understanding you are doing so with the hope and goal of being considered for that position on the next season or next series. Another option is to apply for higher level positions on smaller shows. If you are a show producer for a big cable network series, look for a smaller cable network series to push for the bump up.
How have you seen the doc/reality segment change over the years? Are networks still interested in telling the same type of stories?
The reality/doc world is constantly evolving and will continue to do so because it must. The old fashioned story telling model is tired. Luckily, we’re definitely seeing networks willing to take more and more creative risks as the world of entertainment viewing is growing and developing on online. Unfortunately, as this is happening, we are also universally seeing budgets coming down. Even major networks are asking for shows to be produced for much, much less.
Do you have a few rules of thumb when it comes to collaborating with creatives on your team? ie. rules you have when giving or receiving notes, or the like?
In post, not every note is going to make the show better. Our job as producers is to determine which notes make the show better and which don’t. If someone above you is giving a note you disagree with, you are going to have to figure out how to get them to think your great idea is theirs. On the flip side, be prepared to put your ego aside and work with the best idea even when it’s not yours.
What about in the field?
During the shoot, notes and ideas come in from all directions and the same rules apply. Some will work and some won’t. When in doubt, keep rolling and looking for the story and consult your supervisor for direction.
You’ve worked for most of the major networks in a production leadership capacity. Do you have any advice for dealing with network executives when it comes to creative questions?
Networks are so different and their involvement is equally as varied. You have to work with their personalities and style. Across all networks, fight for what you believe is best for the series. But as financiers, you have to recognize the network’s importance and right to input. The bottom line is the network executives want what is best for the show just as much as you do. Sometimes those opinions are in line with one another and sometimes they aren’t. It’s a balance.
What do you look for when it comes to hiring your team, either on the production or camera team side? Certain attributes or technical skills?
Experience. Period. Whether technical or a producer, I want the person who can best execute. And the best have experience under their belt. Specifically, experience in that genre or setting (i.e. competition elimination editor/underwater shooter/sports producer, etc) is a must. If someone has worked multiple seasons on a show, that says a lot. If someone has worked for the same company on multiple projects, that says a lot. Those are the people I will hire in a second. Equally as important, I want people who take initiative. These are people who know their jobs, come in, take the reins and do their jobs to the best of their ability. This rings true for all departments. I also look for references – both references provided by the potential crew member and others who are not on their list.
At the same time, I love bringing in new people who want their break into the business. For these folks I want to see a stellar attitude, a eagerness to work hard and a willingness to do whatever it takes to help out a production, even if it isn’t what you initially signed up for. If someone is willing to be a team player, I’ll do everything I can to help them advance.
What note do you hear given most often over headset to the camera team when covering a scene?
My control rooms are run very efficiently. They have to be. There is always so much going on. On Ninja there are over 50 cameras rolling on each run. On Strong there were almost 40. So chatter on the camera channel is held to a minimum. Frankly, that’s true for even the smallest shoots. On Supernanny we had 2 to 3 cameras rolling at a time. Shooters are focused and should only be interrupted when necessary. The most common notes: battery warnings, re-balance notes, check your focus, framing notes, technical notes and notes to follow story.
Has technology made your job easier over the years? Or, at the end of the day, is it simply storytelling with different tools?
Technology has made our jobs easier and more fun on so many levels. It’s generously allowed us to be more creative in our storytelling and in shot gathering. That’s what it’s all about – telling entertaining and moving stories. GoPros, drones, cable cams, advanced audio collecting have made tremendous impacts on my shows from American Ninja Warrior to The Island. Budgets are down, but we still need the coverage so we lean heavily on new devices. On the post side, from digitizing and retaining image quality all the way down to color correction, audio mixes and network delivery, the digital movement has brought post production into the modern era. Everything looks and sounds better than ever before and it’s achieved much more efficiently.
Can you recall one instance specifically in which you were especially proud of a mid-production pivot that solved a particular problem?
If I didn’t have a MIDDAY pivot, it wouldn’t be production! Production is a series of constant challenges.
Midday it is!
On Survivor we received a tsunami warning following a nearby earthquake. There wasn’t time to remove the cast from the beaches so a safe solution had to be figured out, fast! On Ninja during the testing phase, obstacles would prove to be disappointing or impossible to complete so we had to shift gears or throw it out all together. On The Island we had a cast member fall and injure his back. He was medically evacuated from the island. But we didn’t have the fall on camera! So we had to figure out how to tell that critical story in post despite the lack of coverage. On numerous shows I’ve had to talk cast members off the ‘I quit’ ledge. This one is probably what I’m most proud of because it’s personal. The cast member is struggling with a deep personal desire that is usually based on fear. I work hard to help them realize that if they can tough it out they will come out the other side a stronger, more confident, or more loving human being. No pain, no gain as they say. And for me, that is worth fighting for.
Do you have one tip for a new producer starting off his or her career?
Get field and bay experience. Write. Learn and study your craft so you know the ins and outs of storytelling. Strive to have a good attitude, a strong work ethic and be persistent. Let your passion lead you. We spend most of our lives working. So if you do nothing else, make sure you carve a path in the direction that feeds your soul.