Meet Your Makers: The Puzzle in the Project with Steven Sills

Steven Sills is kaboom’s intrepid head of production - a role to which he brought 28 years of national and international production experience. As a highly skilled producer across numerous platforms, Steven plays a central role in kaboom’s many productions, serving both as HOP and line producer. With the wide array of needs that arise with today’s productions, from very long lead time to immediate turn-around, having Steve in the thick of things best serves the process, agency, client, and director. It’s part of how kaboom puts relationships first at every turn.

LBB> What first attracted you to production - and has it been an industry you’ve always worked on or did you come to it from another area?

Steven> I think like many producers, for me the job taps into the fun of “hey, let’s put on a show”. The excitement of seeing all the pieces come together, all these talented people collaborating and the adrenaline of the deadline that transforms an idea into an experience is what makes it worthwhile.  

LBB> What was your first role in the production world and how did this experience influence how you think about production and how you grew your career?

Steven> While working to pay my way through NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, I had the opportunity to produce the first Pan-African film festival in North America. What started as taking notes for my boss and mentor, Dean Sheril Antonio, evolved into running a massive, multi-day event with celebrities like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Jonathan Demme and Spike Lee. I learned from that experience that you delegate or you drown. This job and this industry requires working with and depending on others; it’s a social sport, not a solo one.

LBB> How did you learn to be a producer?

Steven> I worked with some excellent producers and project managers. This is a job best conveyed from professional to apprentice. It is also a craft that requires learning on the job because until you feel the stakes (and the cost of your errors) in a real production, you can’t be trusted fully.

LBB> Looking back to the beginning of your career, can you tell us about a production you were involved in where you really had to dig deep and that really helped you to grow as a producer?

Steven> My first professional experience as a producer was at NHK, Japan’s national TV networks, in Tokyo. I had an excellent mentor in my executive producer, Mr. Yoshigi. We were working on a weekly music show with all the top pop stars in Asia in a multi-country live broadcast. Mr. Yoshigi taught me to keep an even temperament in the face of one production crisis after another. He was methodical, insightful and always ready to have fun with his team. He also taught me how to negotiate.  

LBB> A good producer should be able to produce for any medium, from film to events to digital experience. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why/why not?

Steven> Yes, I think good production skills transcends the medium. I have produced events, TV series, features, commercials and corporate videos. The same skill set was always at play.

LBB> What’s your favourite thing about production and why?

Steven> The process. The journey. The ride. Certainly the finished work is the goal but once we reach that point, I find myself looking to the next project, a new challenge. Each project is an intellectual puzzle (or a few hundred puzzles) that ends on delivery.

LBB> How has production changed since you started your career?

Steven> The major technological paradigm shifts in the last 30 years – cell phones, the Web and digital cinematography – have created the biggest changes. I started out with a roll of quarters for pay phones, call sheets on a typewriter and carrying film canisters to the lab. While those analogue days had their own charm, I like how accessible filmmaking has become and how we can find solutions faster. I also don’t mind the recent changes post-covid in how we collaborate more with creatives…it requires more effort but pre-production meetings and video village have less drama overall.

LBB> And what has stayed the same?

Steven> Despite the pressure to compress budgets and shooting time every year, professional filmmaking still requires a team of craftspeople to work together. The art of the AC, the Gaffer, the Grip, the production designer, hair & make-up, etc. has not been replaced by technology. For example, LED lighting may have eliminated a couple of electrics here and there to run distro but we still need a bunch of human beings on set to light a scene for the foreseeable future.

LBB> What do you think is the key to being an effective producer - and is it something that’s innate or something that can be learned?

Steven> The key to being an effective producer is resilience. Critical thinking, effective communication, sharp negotiation skills and a passion to advocate for the creative are all important but if you can’t weather a process that will always defy certainty, it’s not the job for you.

LBB> Which production project from across your career are you most proud of and why?

Steven> We worked with Bank of America to cover the Special Olympic World Games in Los Angeles and then in Austria. Every day of that shoot was so positive that we all joked that we’d gotten tired of smiling by the end of the day. We had a wonderful international camera team and a great director in Doug Werby and the final films really captured the experience perfectly.  I remember at one point we had to ski down to a camera position and I wiped out. Two Olympians helped me up and told me not to worry, the rest of the slope was easy…I was honoured to be in their company.

LBB> And in terms of recent work, which projects have you found to be particularly exciting or have presented particularly interesting production challenges?

Steven> The first couple of jobs after the shutdown were an intense challenge. Before the industry got up to speed with the covid protocols, we had to figure out how to do what we’ve done for years but with both hands tied behind our back…and wearing a mask. But the 'show went on' and as always we found ways of working safely while other industries just shut down.

The advent of the LED wall and XR stages made famous by The Mandalorian has definitely become a new production puzzle that twists traditional notions of principal photography and post-production in new ways. How we scope these jobs is very tricky as the technology is new and bringing those two cultures together more closely – production & post – requires rethinking how we organise the business.

LBB> Producers always have the best stories. What’s the hairiest / most insane situation you’ve found yourself in and how did you work your way out of it?

Steven> I had a crew held for ransom on a foreign shoot by corrupt local cops. We were shooting street scenes and suddenly men with automatic weapons showed up on our set. I gathered the remaining crew and pushed them into a van that took off for our hotel. I then stayed to negotiate the ‘permit fees’ surrounded by a lot of guns. We ended up filming in our hotel for the rest of the project.

LBB> What are your personal ambitions or aspirations as a producer?

Steven> I want to keep adapting to new technology and look forward to having to rethink how we do things. But mostly, at this point in my career, I want to mentor and support new talented folks who will inherit this industry. I especially want to see our industry diversify and become much more inclusive. We are still a very white and very male business and it’s the time now to welcome a bigger world into production.

LBB> As a producer your brain must have a neverending "to do" list. How do you switch off? What do you do to relax?

Steven> I have four children that don’t care about my to-do list. That indifference, while sometimes frustrating, is the secret liberation parents enjoy. Shifting gears is hard but they keep me grounded.

LBB> Producers are problem solvers. What personally fuels your curiosity and drive?

Steven> I like puzzles and games. Gamifying the world has always made my work palatable. We need to win in the end…we need to get the shot, finish the project, overdeliver.

LBB> What advice would you give to people who are interested in becoming a producer?

Steven> Get as much set experience as possible and learn about every aspect. Being versed in the mechanics of filmmaking is how an effective producer leads a production. We are midwives to the process, deferent but involved, and the more you speak with some authority about the problems and technical issues that come up, the more your crew will trust you. And learn to make mistakes and be honest about them.

LBB> From your experience what are the ingredients for a successful production?

Steven> It’s all about good prep for me. The most creative people I work with are monsters of prep, brainstorming every element, every shot well before the camera rolls. It reduces surprises on set and allows for just the positive ones.

LBB> What’s the key to a successful production-client relationship?

Steven> The key to a successful production-client relationship is clear, constant communication. Covid forced us onto Zoom, Teams and Google Meet. And while I definitely suffer from video chat exhaustion, it has given us a way of checking in more often and face-to-face where we can read whether folks are coming to a consensus or not aligning. More check-ins can feel awkward for old school production folks but I am finding that it’s helping build better rapport with creatives and ultimately the client.

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Lauren Schwartz