Secret Genius for Spotify • An FCPX Workflow
In this exclusive interview, FCPWORKS chats with Ben Jehoshua from Brian Graden Media. Ben recently directed the debut season of Secret Genius, a Spotify documentary series about singer-songwriters. The project was also the first piece of original video content for Spotify and was produced using Final Cut Pro X and Lumaforge’s Jellyfish.
Describe your overall responsibilities.
I’m the Senior Vice President of Development at Brian Graden Media. I run our internal production studio called BGM Studio and work on sizzle reels, presentations and pilots. Over the last couple of years, we’ve developed well over 150 projects. I also directed a feature film and I’m working with two teams right now to write new projects, some of it low burner/long-term kind of stuff. We’re also representing one of my personal projects, which is a suspense thriller feature film.
What’s your production background?
I’ve been filming since I was very young and growing up in Israel. I was also teaching younger kids how to shoot video and edit. Then I came to Los Angeles to attend film school at Columbia College in Hollywood and later started my career as an editor. I worked on TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Disney’s Shark Attack and Intimate Escapes for TLC. I was an editor for years and then started my own production company with two other partners, one of whom is my brother, Judah Jehoshua. We did a lot of stuff for Mattel toys like Barbie Hot Wheels, Brats and tons of kid’s commercials. Also corporate video for tech companies like Intel, Microsoft, IBM; car companies like Honda, Hyundai, Toyota. That was our bread and butter for years until we started doing developing a project called Geek My Pad.
And I showed it around to my contacts and they said wow, you’re really good at this presentation thing. One thing led to another and I worked on a few projects in the industry that did well. I was directing, producing and editing presentations for a while until Brian Graden and I worked together and then we started this internal division at Brian Graden Media.
Was Secret Genius something you originally pitched to Spotify?
It came from one of our SVP’s, Jeffrey Wank and it was his passion project. For years he’s been going to these songwriter conventions and been learning about the stories behind the songs. So it was a project we pitched in other places around town. And strangely enough, when we went to Spotify they already wanted to do something very songwriter focused and pay homage to all these amazing songwriters that are featured on their platform. So it was good timing. We looked at the budget and the resources that they were giving us and it just made sense to do it internally with my team. I created a lot of presentations that kind of went back and forth until we settled on the creative with Spotify.
Was the length of each episode predetermined?
It came out organically, because other than the storytelling, the format also includes an unplugged performance where the songwriters perform their own music at the end of the episode. We knew that would be three to five minutes depending on the song. And then we sort of reverse engineered it from there and wanted to keep it between five and eight minutes for the story portion. But one of the challenges was how do you have one person in a very intimate storytelling format? And also how do you integrate the photos from their past and names of the songs and lyrics? That was the most interesting part of this to work on creatively.
Were the guest subjects mostly established or brand new artists?
Very well established, like Justin Tranter, Priscilla Renae and also Poo Bear who writes for Justin Bieber. So we were always pleasantly surprised by how as you’d talk to somebody, you just would realize how prolific and amazing their work is. Our showrunner Georgi Goldman really did a deep dive into their stories and I’m very proud of being able to work with her.
Did Spotify want to start with just a pilot or shoot the entire season at once?
They went for the entire season from the start, 10 episodes. One of the challenges Georgi and her research team had to overcome was scheduling because these songwriters are ultra-successful people with very packed schedules. So it was a little bit like herding cats to bring everybody onto the soundstage. We shot two episodes a day over a one week shoot on a soundstage. Everything had to be very tight and scheduled correctly.
Describe the production.
Everything was filmed in 4K on four Sony FS7’s. And the interesting part was that Spotify came to us about five days before the shoot and said, we might just broadcast this at a 9:16 aspect ratio on our app on the phone and even if we don’t, we would like everything to be formatted so it’s both landscape and portrait, so make sure nothing hits outside of the assigned 9:16 area for portrait viewing on a phone.
So that threw a very challenging wrench into our production and we decided to mark all the monitors on set. Every single shot was carefully planned to not stray outside of the 9:16 portrait area on our monitors. The creative called for lots of camera motion and also moves in post. We want it to be constantly moving and zooming even if it’s digitally and the interesting part of the creative is one of our cameras was outside of the stage window that we built and the intention was always to track graphics and images from the songwriters past, whether it’s a performance or childhood pictures or whatever the creative called for to track it on to this window that we built into the set. So that was a challenge because we also knew that we needed to show these images in landscape and also make them work in portrait.
And where did you shoot?
We were Glendale on a soundstage for five days. We had a couple of prep days and a breakdown day at the end. The set had this massive chandelier and enormous crystal disco ball. Just mounting that was a challenge because we really tried to go for a specific look.
What was the timeframe from completing production to delivering the entire season?
We actually staggered the delivery because there were so many people approving the stuff both internally and externally at Spotify. Episodes one, two and three were released together first and then the rest were released in clusters of two or three. Spotify also commissioned a format from us that we referred to it as a living playlist. It’s a 30-minute audio playlist that incorporates our footage. Whenever the songwriter mentions a particular song, that song starts playing and then a few other songs from that songwriter follow. So it’s almost like a premium vlog by that songwriter, direct to camera.
Which tools did you use in post-production?
Our internal team has been working on Final Cut Pro X since version one. Our editors got really fast on it and we were talking about using it because we’d developed a sensibility with our editors and we love them. They didn’t want to move to Avid and get bogged down.
We wanted to use the LUT our DP Neal Brown created on set and do some moves digitally all in 4K. We also brought on two additional Avid editors. They were very well accomplished on big shows and I was kind of dreading the conversation with them about working with Final Cut Pro X. But they were actually familiar with it, they had just never dived in with it on a professional project like this with deadlines and lots of people touching media.
After that, we needed to iron out the kinks in our building because we were initially on an Avid Isis media server and that was not fun. Then, Lumaforge came in with the Jellyfish and solved our issues and the editors got so addicted to it and flying on the system. It was kind of a joy to see Avid editors meld into Final Cut Pro X.
We had three story producers, our showrunner and two graphics graphic artists. In total, there were eight people working simultaneously off of the Jellyfish, four stations on 10 gig and four stations on 1 gig, which was seamless and flawless. The capacity of the Jellyfish was 36 terabytes but we only used about 18-20 terabytes. We cut everything inside of Final Cut Pro X and did the animation in After Effects.
How did you first hear about Lumaforge?
We did a little demo back when they were in Culver City. We went over to check them out because we heard they had a shared server optimized for Final Cut Pro X. So we bought version one for our internal development team. Honestly, I turned it on once and then about a year and a half later I realized I had never turned it off but it was just working. Then we rented another Jellyfish for Secret Genius and ended up buying that one as well. Sam Mestman and everyone over at Lumaforge has been amazing, some of the best support I’ve ever had.
What was the final delivery for Spotify?
We finished as much as we could inside Final Cut Pro X including the initial color correction. With Neal’s LUT, the main work was to just make sure the levels are all set within the waveform. We did our final sound mix at a post house in New York.
How does Spotify measure the overall success of a show?
The digital world is ever-shifting and people are really trying to find the meaning of success, especially in a subscription-based service like Spotify. They haven’t told us what the viewership is and it’s also still very much fresh and new episodes are still coming online at this moment. I do know that their number one initiative is Secret Genius songwriting songwriter outreach. It’s very important to them culturally as a company to reach out to songwriters. We get new pieces of information every week and we’re certainly proud to be a part of their first push into media.
How would you compare delivering a project for a streaming subscription service to a more traditional broadcast workflow?
Brian Graden Media has been in the forefront of the production on digital for a few years now. We haven’t watered down our delivery process and one of the key reasons is a lot of the linear people have been migrating over to digital. So, they bring with them the expectations for high quality and expect top-notch color correction and sound mix. The key differences are that the air date can get a little flexible and the running times, because we don’t have to put the commercial breaks in between the content or adhere to a specific length.
If Spotify requested a second season, would you change your approach?
We enjoyed the process so much and everybody got emotional at the end of the week because it was such a great subject to get immersed in. The crew was spectacular, so I wouldn’t change a thing when it comes to the shoot. Honestly, I don’t even know how we would’ve finished this show without the magnetic timeline in Final Cut Pro X. We were getting things like crazy and just flowing so nimbly and quickly on cuts and that was that was really cool. And it’s also just a powerful workflow.
Is producing for streaming really popular now?
It’s not quite the Golden Age of streaming just yet. For us, it’s definitely still starting because we have our development meetings and we’re excited about digital and anything that’s cutting-edge and new. I think everybody’s trying to figure it out every week and often when we look at our digital networks we’re surprised to find that one of them folded or another one has popped up and the network needs are so vastly different. I think it’s a great time to do what we’re doing and it feels like the ground is shifting a lot.
Is there anything, in particular, you’re keeping an eye out for in terms of industry trends?
I’m always fascinated with workflow, for example, we recently installed Transcriptive from Digital Anarchy which does automated transcriptions. I’m always kind of guilty of adopting things a little early. I’m not an excitement junkie or anything, I just love the technology and I’m always trying to be tuned in. I love to see what’s new with editing and who’s forging forward and creating new workflows.