It was a mid-morning Zoom call in the latter stages of COVID-19. Sawyer and I were on the call with the marketing team from White Construction Company (WCC), a long-time staple in the Austin construction industry with a strong reputation. We had cleared the first couple of hurdles in the bidding process, and we were getting down to brass tax. Our competition for the project were companies with far more video experience in the construction industry, and we needed to make a strong statement.
At this point, White Construction had yet to utilize video marketing, and, to top it off, we had never produced video content for a construction company.
But lack of experience did not stop WCC from shooting for the stars on their first foray into video marketing. The company was coming up on its 50th anniversary; they had a history to tell, and they wanted to say it in full — a cast of over 30 voices needed to come together to tell one story spanning 50 years.
At the time, we had nothing of this scale in our portfolio to give WCC confidence in us. Our vision was additionally tricky to sell for us because our partnership was, literally, brand new.
After letting us know the truth of the matter: “The other companies we’re looking at have a lot of experience in the construction industry,” they said; one of the WCC marketing members asked the obvious question, the one you might be asking yourself at this point, “Why should we hire MR. Productions?”
We discussed this fair concern before getting on the call with WCC. From their perspective, we were the risky choice. This significant project was weighty to the White family; messing it up was not an option. There was no sugar coating the truth, so we didn’t.
We acknowledged that, on paper, we were the risky choice. But it was our opinion that hiring a young production company was not the most significant risk. “Your biggest risk is spending hours planning this video, expending a great deal of effort, and spending tens of thousands of dollars, only to end up with a long corporate video no one watches because it’s boring.”
It was a blunt thing to say but valid. How many companies have sent you a video, and within the first 15 seconds, you wonder when it will be over? How often do companies invest in video marketing only to end up with a slideshow of cool stuff rather than a powerful narrative?
Never be boring.
Like a dusty map to buried treasure, we take that with us wherever we go. It’s with us through every step of the video production process, from pre-production planning to post-production editing.
It was clear we all were on the same page. The marketing team at White was not here to produce ho-hum seen-it-before marketing content, and neither were we. So we got down to business.
Create a Sense of Place
With a project of this size, it can be challenging to figure out where to start. There are the obvious logistical considerations of who to interview and what building projects to feature. Part of our pitch to WCC was that their story, especially being in the building business, was connected to their place on the map.
Charles White started White Construction in 1971 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the second office was opened ten years later by his son, Neel, in Austin, Texas. These two locations formed the basis for the documentary landscape.
Through our cinematography of Clarksdale and Austin, we created a sense of place within the documentary. But it wasn’t exclusively about cinematic visuals; we wanted the story itself to tell of these places.
Your brand origin crafts the fabric of your company. So we went to the birthplace of White Construction Company in Clarksdale, and we asked the people who were there when the company started to describe what it was like. However, if Clarksdale, Mississippi, was the birthplace, Austin, Texas, was where the company grew up.
White Construction’s story through the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s intertwined with the history of Austin. The college town was growing up into a tech hub for the Lone Star state, and White Construction was there to build it, starting with the entire Dell campus in the 1990s.
We knew as filmmakers that a significant hook for the target audience, made up of construction industry professionals from around Texas, was seeing WCC’s rise with Austin. So we established a sense of place and made the first step towards capturing the audience’s attention with a magnetic narrative.
Tap into the Emotion/Passion of the Story
We sat down across from Neel White in the top floor ballroom of a high-rise in downtown Austin. He was softspoken and respectful. Our goal was to learn the order of events in the early days of White Construction. But that was not our only reason for interviewing Neel.
We knew Neel to be a conscientious man, but for this story to pack the most punch, we needed to see in this interview some of the passion and care it took to lead the Austin office to the heights it now enjoyed.
If there’s anything we’ve learned about documentary filmmaking, there is an art to interviews. Businessmen and women are not actors. They usually cannot sit down in front of the lights and cameras and comfortably be themselves on camera. However, if given time to relax and guided into sharing their story, a surprising conversational tone creeps into the subject’s voice, and all performative jitters go by the wayside.
We started the interview with Neel as we did with everyone else. First, I asked Neel questions about the old days, then follow-up questions, and slowly we worked our way into the meat of the interview. The prepared questions came naturally in the flow of conversation and the mix of spontaneous questions. At first, Neel consulted his notes, but as the conversation progressed, his body language changed, and the notes sat on the floor.
It was his story, and now he was sharing it. We talked about his dad, his brother, Guy, and the relentless effort required to start a construction company in Austin. Towards the end of the interview, I mentioned to Neel what many others had said about him, that he ramped up his energy and determination as he neared retirement rather than slowing down.
He was serious, and his voice was urgent as he stated his mission to leave White Construction in a successful position after his departure. “That’s a sign of success, right?” I agreed. It was the passion of a man set on leaving a legacy.
Those moments made the final cut, and so did many more moments from our thirty-plus interviews. Tapping into the emotion of a brand story requires hearing from the people who lived it and saw it all happen. But it’s not as easy as “Tell me about your passion for your company.” It requires time and a style of interview that encourages conversation.
Build Narrative Energy
After multiple flights to five different cities, interviews with partners, employees, owners, collaborators, and footage of dozens of projects across three states, we had our puzzle pieces.
Our first step was listening to all of the interviews (about seventeen hours) and categorizing each one by topic covered. Next, we reduced the puzzle pieces to a thirty-minute rough cut. The final cut needed to be, at max, half that length. This minute cap was a blessing in disguise.
Clients sometimes like the extended version of their video because it shows more of the story. Like an extended version of a fantasy film, it’s made for the fans who aren’t ready to let their beloved characters go. So when we begin with a lengthy rough cut, it can feel overwhelming
to decide what to cut out, but this difficult process is necessary. Audiences will turn your video off the moment it drags.
The editing process aims to build narrative energy by moving the story along. Each scene has an objective, and when the goal is met, the scene is over.
One such example in the Evergreen video occurred towards the story's beginning. We had powerful stories about Charles White’s character and care for his employees. We could have used three or four different stories, but this stretched the “scene” about Mr. White’s character into a multiple-minute sequence.
Each story about Mr. White came down to the same essential message – Mr. White was a great man to work with. However, the Evergreen video didn't need to include every story, so we chose one. In the final edit, we hit the vital story beat about Mr. White being a man of strong character; then, we moved on.
All of the pieces can feel necessary. The footage can be dynamic and cinematic. The interviews can be powerful and genuine. But if they aren’t cut into a lean narrative where each scene does something different from the prior one and simultaneously push the narrative forward, all of the money, time, and care spent on those pieces was a waste.
Never be boring.
This moment is so good. But is it necessary?
The most famous rule from E.B. Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style, is Rule 17:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Every sequence, scene, and beat of the Evergreen video needed to tell.
Professional sound design and color grading were the finishing touches on the Evergreen video that elevated WCC’s powerful brand narrative to a polished video capable of withstanding the passage of time.
The soundscape enhanced every other aspect of the video by making the sense of place vibrant and immediate. Our music selection carried the passion and emotion of the story, and subtle shifts in the SFX pushed the narrative energy.
Interviews were filmed at different locations, times of day, and even seasons and the color grade gave the entire branded documentary a consistent look of its own.
No Better Feeling
There is no better feeling than delivering the final cut of a project in which we spent hundreds of hundreds to a satisfied client. And White Construction was not just satisfied – the story moved their leaders to tears more than once as they saw 50 years of hard work and sacrifice manifested on-screen in thirteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds.
The Evergreen video was awarded the highly competitive Best Marketing Video in Austin by the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) at their 2022 annual Black + White Bash. It was a humbling moment for us to be a part of White Construction’s success.
The Black + White Bash happened a year and a half after our first meeting with White Construction when we asked them to take a chance on us. And as we took pictures with the trophy, laughed, and talked about the Evergreen video, we couldn’t help thinking about whose story we tell next.
Maybe it’s yours.
Author: Caleb McKnight