Interviews | Local Industry

From Munich to Maine

1 Feb , 2008  

Written by Scott R. Caseley | Posted by:

Jynx Productions, based in Portland, ME, creates unique shorts for the German television market.  Co-founder Johannes Wiebus explains why their programming is a viable commodity overseas.

Johannes Wiebus was raised in Munich, Germany, before moving to London and then to New York City in 2000.  After living in “The City” as he calls it, for five years, he and his wife Kathleen O’Heron decided that it was time to pick up stakes and make a “little bit of a life change.”   She was an editor and he was a producer, so they decided to try working together.  Realizing that living in the city would limit their editing space, and despite adoration for NYC, they surmised that it wasn’t sensible to start a production business under such cramped conditions. 

They had vacationed to Maine a number of times, and really liked it a lot.   They thought that the state would be an ideal place for them to start the business that they both dreamed about.  They sold their apartment and took a “leap of faith” and with their two young children, they settled in Yarmouth.

Scott Caseley: What is your background in film/video production? 

Johannes Wiebus: I was a producer and reporter for the German version of Bloomberg Television in London and New York before freelancing for various German news channels, and then founding Jynx.  Kathleen has been a news and documentary editor for various networks and production companies before quitting the corporate world and founding Jynx with me.  

SC: How long have you been in business? 

Wiebus: Jynx Productions was founded three years ago.  I’ve been in TV production for 10 years now, and Kathleen for 15 years. 

SC: How does a company in Portland, ME create shorts that are seen on German television? 

Wiebus: I’m German, and have always worked in the German TV industry.  Funnily enough, never in Germany.  Germany is the world’s second largest media market, and there’s a lot of so-called "magazine shows" — TV formats that require 10-15 minute long shorts or mini-documentaries.   So reporting from the US for a variety of these programs is a niche we caved out for ourselves.  I produce, direct and write; Kathleen edits and is in charge of the back office. 

SC: How did you land your first deal with Germany? 

Wiebus: The jump from being employed as part of a German network’s US office and running my own production company wasn’t easy.  But I obviously had some contacts in this field in New York.  I started working for a NY-based production company, and got my name attached to a few stories.  That helped, but I also cold-called a lot of shows in Germany that had never heard of me.  Once you get your foot in the door and you have a reel to show and good ideas, you’re in. 

SC: What would you say are some defining differences in the way you make something for a German audience as opposed to an American one? 

Wiebus: Well, as clichéd as it sounds — Germans love detail.  So right from the get-go, in pre-production, I try to find out as much as possible about the subject and protagonists.  It’s really research, journalistic work.  I don’t know too many US producers who would regard themselves as journalists.  I write a full script before I go on the shoot — I don’t want to have too many surprises.  The more I can direct the action, the better, because I know what the audience wants to see: they want to learn something, experience something they haven’t seen before — and be entertained at the same time.  

So with a new cameramen, I usually have to brief them before the shoot.  I tell them not to just point and shoot, reality-TV show, but think about every shot and every set-up.  They are often shocked that I arrive on location with script in hand and a bunch of set-ups that I want to get through.   

A lot of protagonists who have shot with US TV before are also often surprised.  "Man, these guys really want to know/see/do everything," is a comment I hear all the time.  I think the way a lot of US productions work is: send someone out on a shoot, try to get a s much footage as possible, think about story lines in post.  I try to have the whole story line intact before I go on the shoot.  It’s quite simple — we’re a small company.  I only have one shot.  I can’t afford to go back and re-shoot, so I really want to get it done right the first time. 

SC: How do you shoot differently? 

Wiebus: We like lots of close-ups, details.  Establishing shots are hardly used anymore.  Low angles are hot; we always shoot with a secondary camera that can be mounted on something to get unusual angles and perspectives.  Almost every story has some POV shots in it.  The biggest complaints I get from the networks are about "boring" footage — when stuff looks like "news."  Every shot, every setup, has to look interesting (of course the exceptions are action scenes, when something amazing is happening).  We don’t ever do sit-down interviews.  Everything has to be situational.  When someone talks about his motorcycle, I want to see him working on his motorcycle, not standing 10 feet in front of it and talking to the camera.  

SC: What kinds of equipment do you shoot with? 

Wiebus: It used to be BETA SP, but I just switched to a HPX500 camera, and we are now shooting HD footage on P2 cards.  I own the camera, but hire crews to shoot all my footage. 

SC: In what ways would your editing style differ from an American production? 

Wiebus: It’s not as hectic as a lot of US productions.  No dissolves, no cheesy effects, lots of blurs and blur-pushes.  There’s no wallpaper footage — every image has to tell a story.  There’s less voiceover than in US productions, and more situational conversations.  The audio mix is very important.  Luckily, because of license agreements in Europe, we are allowed to use any piece of music we want for the soundtrack, so that really helps to move the piece along.  

SC: Your films for German television range in topics from robotic cars controlled by Stanford University students in a bizarre road race to an eating competition — who proposes the focus of the shows? 

Wiebus: It’s a mix between me proposing a story and a network calling with a concrete idea for a story.  I’d say it’s 50/50.  The focus of my clients, these magazine-type shows, changes frequently and we have to adjust.  One day, it’s all about rich, decadent people, then suddenly they want reality-TV style pieces on the biggest x and the craziest y.  Right now, a lot of focus is on food, and environmental issues.  

SC: How much money do you spend on each? 

Wiebus: Each story has a budget between $8,000 and $16,000. 

SC: Who sets the budgets for these productions? 

Wiebus: We set the budget, but it is limited to how much we will get paid per story.  The way it works is we get a fixed "per-minute-aired" rate.  A 12-minute story pays better than an eight-minute story.  So the 12-minute story gets a bigger budget attached to it — more shoot days, more graphics etc.  Of course you can’t always say in pre-production how long a piece is really going to end up.  So we don’t really know how much we’ll get paid until after the piece is finished.  But after a while, you learn these variables, and I have a good rapport with the executive producers of the German shows; so if a story goes horribly wrong, I can be pretty sure that I’ll get reimbursed for my expenses.  

SC: What do you think the appeal of these bizarre aspects of American life is to a German audience? 

Wiebus: Well, America, as much as its image has suffered in the last seven years, is still the country Europe looks to for anything pop-culture related.  So while most people in Germany question American politics and culture right now, they still watch American movies and TV shows, listen to American music and imitate American fashion trends.  Anything that happens here is relevant, whether it’s the newest robot developments or a guy eating 25 waffles in eight minutes for a new world record.  The fact that we get to cover such a broad spectrum of topics and people really makes the job interesting.  My favorite aspect of doing this is learning a lot about stuff I had never even heard of before — like roller derby or card counting in Vegas. 

SC: These films clearly could have an international audience, any plans to branch out and sell them to other countries as well, or to domestic US markets? 

Wiebus: I’d love to, but it’s a rights issue.  The networks maintain most of the rights to these stories.  But it’s a valid question, and we hope to eventually do just that — rework some of these stories for an American audience. 

SC: Clearly all your money can’t come from these German broadcasts; what other services does your company offer? 

Wiebus: Actually, it could.  We’re pretty well established with four big network shows over there.  But we have started to diversify in the last year or so, and have taken on more local projects.  We’ve shot some corporate videos for companies on the East Coast, and have collaborated with Portland ad agencies to create TV and cinema spots.  The German stuff is great and exciting, but also very time-consuming and quite stressful under deadline pressure.  So the more local business comes our way, the better! 

SC: What projects do you have lined up? 

Wiebus: Currently, we’re working on a story about the world’s best diamond replica maker, and on a piece on Ben & Jerry’s, asking, "Is this really the world’s best ice cream?" 

Find out what Jynx thinks at www.jynxproductions.com.


Find out what Jynx thinks at www.jynxproductions.com.