MTV UK’s promo producer James Green on thinking fast and the power of personal work
Working alongside animal wranglers, hiring out the entire Ministry of Sound and strapping VR headsets onto the cast of Geordie Shore. It’s a regular day at the MTV office for promo producer, James Green. Growing up with a love of storytelling, when he wasn’t writing poems at primary school or spending his teenage years documenting band practice, he was making videos with friends: “I was always the guy filming stuff on school lunch breaks.” Graduating from Kingston’s graphic design course in 2014, James has climbed the ranks from creative assistant to promo producer in just two years at MTV’s Camden-based office. Between coming up with ideas for campaigns, writing scripts and running between sets and sound studios, he’s developed a portfolio of explosive, funny and unmistakably MTV promos. He tells us about thinking fast and the power of personal work.
Promo Producer, MTV UK (2015–present)
Junior Promo Producer, MTV UK (2016–2017)
Creative Assistant, MTV UK (2015–2016)
Director and Editor, Progress Film Company (2014–2015)
BA Graphic Design and Photography, Kingston University (2011–2014)
How would you describe your job?
I’m a promo producer and director on the creative team at MTV UK. It’s a fairly broad role, which always makes discussing work at family reunions long-winded. We come up with the ideas for show campaigns, write copy and scripts, direct and edit promos and trailers. We also then conceptualise and direct photoshoots for the online and print work, which runs alongside the promos.
What does a typical working day look like?
I wake up around 8am, and the working hours are 9.30am to 6pm, give or take a couple extra hours for crazy deadline days or when you’re out on a shoot. First I check and reply to emails before starting my workload, unless there are team meetings to attend to first. That’s where the daily formula ends really; each day tends to be slightly different. If in the office, I could be writing ideas, scripting, editing or talking to various crews before a shoot.
In terms of time management, you have to slowly discipline yourself, which I’m getting better at. It’s always hard not to overthink certain tasks…or try to delay the daunting ones.
“I’ve heard horror stories of some agencies expecting employees to stay ridiculously late hours and so on, which never happens here.”
What do you like about working in London?
Living in London’s pretty full-on, but I think that’s what I like about it. It’s definitely an essential place for my line of work; if you didn’t live here you’d still be commuting in on a regular basis. Most of the main studios, agencies, post-production houses and TV channels have their HQs here, so you’re always in some part of the city.
How did you land your current job?
I gained my current position through a promotion, and landed my previous role through a promotion the year before. Viacom is extremely supportive of employee growth which is great. MTV is quite a unique voice in TV, so it definitely helps having spent previous years getting a grip on what audiences want and expect from the brand, in terms of content, humour and tone.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
A majority of my time is spent in the office, mostly in our creative department. Luckily, the Viacom offices are very relaxed and fun; there’s always weird and silly things going on, which makes work enjoyable rather than ever feeling like a chore.
There is a fair bit of time spent on my computer, editing can be a pretty demanding task, so it’s always good to move around the office, whether it’s brainstorming somewhere, or jotting down ideas in one of the communal areas.
With each promo we make, we also have to go to the sound studios to have voiceovers recorded, sound effects added and to have the whole piece mixed by an engineer. They’re mostly based in Soho, so it’s a nice excuse to get out and about. Then there are shoot days, which always vary. They could be done in a film studio, out on location around the country, or abroad (if we’re lucky).
How collaborative is your role?
The role is extremely collaborative, no project is the result of just one individual. Initial ideas can be bounced around with fellow promo producers, which helps keep things fresh. Then you continuously collaborate with in-house designers, producers, DOPs, ADs, audio engineers, actors, VFX artists, the list goes on. Collaboration should never be overlooked or avoided, it’s always good to absorb other people’s opinions, even if they’re not opinions you particularly agree with – they always lead to a positive, progressive impact on your work.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most unexpected aspect is the amount of genuine friends I’ve made through working here. It makes Monday mornings so much easier to deal with, knowing you’ll be in good company. We hang out after work, attend events, gigs, go for drinks – it’s awesome and probably the best part of working here.
I’ve heard horror stories of some agencies expecting employees to stay ridiculously late hours and so on, which never happens here, meaning there’s a good balance between work and life. You have more than enough time to disconnect and unwind.
“The most unexpected aspect is the amount of genuine friends I’ve made through working here.”
With all the positives, there are certainly aspects of the job which can be a little difficult. It’s a very fast-paced industry, and can get a little chaotic sometimes. You could be given weeks to work on a project, or sometimes just a day. Briefs can change last-minute, and deadlines can jump out at you. You tend to just roll with the punches, it keeps you on your toes and you always know you have a good support network behind you who will fight your corner.
With each promo, there’s also a brief aftermath of admin-based tasks. Whether it’s backing up shoot rushes, entering musical licence data so that artists get royalties, exporting countless versions of the same promos.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I think the most exciting project was the latest Geordie Shore shoot. I was the director and editor and was given a lot of creative freedom, so I really feel I’ve made something I’m proud of. As with most projects, it started off as an innocent, small-scale project, which then grew, resulting in us hiring out the whole of Ministry of Sound as our location, working with a crew of over 20 people on the day, including an animal wrangler…it’s been an intense one, but so much fun.
What skills are essential to your job?
As it’s such a broad role, you need to be able to juggle various jobs and tasks simultaneously. You need to be able to keep a calm head and not let things stress you out too much. Be open-minded, accepting of last-minute change, and never be precious over ideas.
With MTV in particular, it definitely helps to keep current and avoid drowning in the ocean of memes. With each new trend or cultural event, we have to be quick off the starting line in order to make sure we remain connected to our younger demographic.
When it comes to directing shoots, it’s essential to be knowledgeable and have an eye for composition and performance. You need to be constantly aware that your finished promo will only be a maximum of 60 seconds long, so you avoid over-shooting and make sure you tie the narrative together. You also have to be prepared for things to go to shit at a moment’s notice. Cast may not turn up, weather may change, equipment may fail you. At those times, people will turn to you for a response, so you need to be quick on your feet and always have back-up plans.
“Be open-minded, accepting of last-minute change and never be precious over ideas.”
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I’m still new to the industry, so I’m trying to build a portfolio of personal directing work as and when I can. It can be a real struggle working on stuff over a weekend, but you just have to force yourself.
I recently directed a music video for a band called Kid Kapichi which was an amazing experience. I was able to work with various crew members I’ve met through my time at MTV, which is another positive of working here.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Premiere Pro to cut promos together, After Effects and Audition for occasional tweaking of audio before it goes to the studio. Photoshop when mocking up storyboards or poster layouts. Notepads for drafting scripts and copy lines, drawing up rough storyboards or making meeting notes.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
From a young age I was always super-interested in film and TV, spending hours watching and reading behind-the-scenes material between repeat viewings of my favourite films. I also used to write tonnes of short stories and poems in the evenings after primary school.
I loved art at school and college, and taught myself photography. As a teenager, I was always the guy filming and documenting stuff. Whether it was hanging out at band practice, partying or trying to make our own terrible Jackass videos on school lunch breaks. Over time, it must have had an impact on my style, especially when making the weirder, comedic stuff.
“Even though I didn’t study film or TV specifically, I’ve come to realise just how much my course has benefited me in this current line of work.”
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Even though I studied graphic design and photography, from my second year I was able to make weird comedy sketches as coursework. I didn’t study film or TV specifically, but I’ve come to realise how much my course helped prepare me for handling the varied elements of the role. It also makes it a lot easier to communicate when briefing designers or photographers, when you have a basic knowledge of those areas too.
What were your first jobs?
At university I did a few running jobs, mostly for post-production at various edit houses and production companies. After graduating I did some freelance photography and filmmaking work for clients like Asos and Sony. I then landed an in-house director and editor position at The Progress Film Company in Brighton, but I knew I wanted to get back into London, and after around six months I landed my first role at MTV, in 2015. I guess the best thing I did was really pushing myself to find and land that first proper TV job and then moving away back into London.
All of those initial jobs allowed me to make industry contacts and gain much-needed experience. It wasn’t quick or easy and not all of them were positive experiences, but you have to go through the tough times to really figure out what you want from your career, and to appreciate when things finally work out.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Early on into my time as a junior promo producer at MTV, I directed a Cribs-style HR recruitment film with Gaz from Geordie Shore as the host. It was my first time handling a project from start to finish, with a fairly substantial budget, crew and on-screen talent. It was one of those thrown-in-the-deep-end moments, but it was so exciting to be given the responsibility.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
The rise of social media has definitely changed this industry. We’re no longer just limited to TV airtime, and the potential reach for our promos has increased tenfold, thanks to Facebook and Instagram. Our content has had to adjust in order to stay relevant and to stand out among the millions of online videos posted each day. I’m sure we’ll continue to see the role of the traditional TV promo producer and the role of online marketers start to blend, as the two become increasingly intertwined.
“The funny thing about this role is the fact that no-one knows it exists.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Each shoot is a challenge, and that’s what I love about them. You’ll always have to tweak ideas, scripts and shots whilst thinking on your feet on set.
Whenever it comes to reviewing the rushes from a shoot the next day, you’ll always notice some slight mistakes, whether it’s the performances of actors, the amount of shot coverage you got, the list goes on. But you just have to work out how to make things work regardless, sculpting the best possible outcome from what you have.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
The funny thing about this role is the fact that no-one knows it exists. Whilst in university I had no idea I could be doing this as a career! Once I did finally learn about it, I could never have prepared for how busy and varied the workload is.
What would you like to do next?
Given the young demographic of MTV, I think I’d struggle to make relevant content the older I got! In the future I’m hoping to get represented as a director, and move into music video and commercial work. I also want to push myself to make as many short films as I can, with the ultimate dream of making an indie feature film.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
You could climb the ranks within in-house teams or go on to become an editor for long-form content such as TV shows or feature films, you could push yourself as a writer (whether that’s copy writing or screenplays), or you could head into directing.
“It’s my own personal work that got my foot in the door here; it allows people to assess what you can really do.”
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Make your own stuff! I can’t advise it enough. It’s my own personal work that got my foot in the door here, and the same happens for many others. It allows people to really asses who you are and what you can do. You could download a movie and cut a fake trailer for it, make a small documentary about someone you find interesting or inspiring, shoot a no-budget music video for a friend’s band or just make silly comedy sketches with mates.
Opportunities will not come to you, you have to make them happen for yourself, and unfortunately that means working in your free time. Also, if you do manage to land yourself a job in a studio or company, use their resources!
Constantly ask questions, make notes, be sociable, and make the most of the office space after hours if you can. Milk the company for all it’s worth; after all, you’re not paying for their computers, broadband or electricity bills. Don’t waste that. Make yourself a portfolio and try to get yourself noticed. You don’t need money, just the right attitude and good ideas.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography by Andy Donohoe
Mention James Green