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Lawsuit day in the life video work -ever done it?

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Zach Christman
Lawsuit day in the life video work -ever done it?
on Sep 23, 2018 at 9:38:31 pm

Has anyone ever produced/edited day in the life videos for lawsuits? I'm considering taking a job in the industry and would appreciate any stories/tips about the work from anyone who'd done it.

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Mark Suszko
Re: Lawsuit day in the life video work -ever done it?
on Sep 24, 2018 at 3:21:35 pm
Last Edited By Mark Suszko on Sep 24, 2018 at 4:24:42 pm

I started my pro career doing these in Chicago for firms like Corboy & Demetrio. Some of the settlements were for record multi-million-dollar amounts. Of course, we only get our day rate for our little part in it. It was very interesting and sometimes personally rewarding work. Now, that was decades ago, but I think some of the "rules" are still the same. I think nowadays, the preferred term of art for "DIL" is "Prospectus Video". Often, the only people that see them are the opposing counsel, in pre-trial discovery. The videos tend to provoke a decision to settle out of court, when they really work well. The lawyers would rather settle than have a jury decide on an amount after seeing the video.

The first thing you gotta know, is that the opposing side's lawyers are going to scrutinize every aspect of the video, not just the master you hand over, but all the raw footage as well, in order to disqualify it from being shown. If you shoot it, you have to keep it, because if you erase it, they will claim there was something incriminating that you hid by destroying it. Treat every frame like you're handling evidence, as an Officer of The Court. The paper trail must be immaculate. You have to approach the job like it was a scientific experiment, crossed with a court deposition. Yes, you might get deposed at some point, to answer questions about the shooting or the editing. The stakes are very high. Millions of dollars and the quality of some person's entire life, rest on how you do your job.

You have to practice great discipline in the shooting. Do not roll one second, until everything is correct. No "bloopers". No re-takes. No wild audio getting comments off-camera. Silent as a ninja.

Also, the opposition are going to be looking to disqualify the video due to ANY kind of "artful" technique that might be interpreted as manipulating the look and content to generate sympathy or emotion or create an opinion not based in fact.

No trick angles, shoot everything at a normal person's eye level.

No jib, slider, etc. moves.

No fancy lighting, if you use supplemental lighting at all, just overall base light to make things visible, and practical lighting alone is preferred. The most exotic lighting thing we ever did on these was to ND gel the outside of a window, just to bring it down a few stops so it didn't blow out the indoor shoots.

No dramatic framing. No fancy steadicam moves.

No fraternization with the subjects beyond the most strictly necessary communications. But always being polite. You may have to witness very personal activities and moments, things that most people will find embarrassing, in the course of recording. Be detached, respectful, but clinical and professional and otherwise do not react.

Shots that play up some injury to garner sympathy are out. You have to shoot in a very dispassionate, detached, documentarian style that is clinical and aloof. No staging scenes, no talent directing allowed; you are to be a fly on the wall and just document what the patient is doing... or -not- doing, ...of their volition, in a clear and unambiguous fashion. I have over-emphasized this so much because it's the whole ballgame.

This is a very niche area to work in, with it's own rules. All the work comes by referral and word-of-mouth, so networking, professionalism in manner and appearance and everything you do... discretion, scrupulous honesty and building strong, trusting relationships with the customer is key. If you mess up one time, you're done. If you do well, the repeat business can be lucrative. I walked away from that biz at the time I was doing this, because it was not steady; it would be feast or famine - make a couple grand one week, starve for three or four... and I needed steadier work to save money and move out of my parent's home and get going with my life.

Track your hours with a timer app. Lawyers understand hourly billing. If you have not yet worked out a day and hourly rate, consult the archives of this forum for lengthy lessons and hints on how to do that. You need that number ready to provide. Avoid bidding a set price: these are bespoke gigs, and it's most likely you will under-or over-estimate the needed hours. Neither of those is good to do.

Bill the job in thirds: one third or so as an up-front deposit before you begin, and you use that to pay any subs or rentals up-front. The second third is paid upon shoot completion and handing over a time-coded window dub to the law firm. Final third is paid at the time of delivery of the finished edit, after they've seen your first cut window dub and ordered any changes to that.

You could, alternately, bill for the shoot and the edit as separate jobs.

You may decide to bill or not bill for further edits, if they come back from a screening with the judge and need additional changes. I think it's probably good customer relations to eat the cost of that last edit if it's not an outrageous amount of hours. Remember that there's always a chance you'll be deposed afterwards, and you can bill the client for that time away from work.

You may be asked to sign an NDA. Even if they don't ask you, know that being too blabby about the details of the gigs you do will lose you work. They like people who keep things confidential.

Still wanna do this? :-)

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Zach Christman
Re: Lawsuit day in the life video work -ever done it?
on Sep 25, 2018 at 5:22:50 am

Wow, Mark. Thank you SO much! I feel like I just had a master class. I'm in Chicago, too. Not doing this by myself. Getting involved with a production team already making these. I think it's more the rewarding aspect of helping out someone who's injured that got me interested. And I like the Cinema Verite aspect as well. I think I'm going to print your response and keep it handy. - Zach

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Mark Suszko
Re: Lawsuit day in the life video work -ever done it?
on Sep 26, 2018 at 3:01:31 pm

OK, but I retain the movie rights:-)

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Tim Wilson
Re: Lawsuit day in the life video work -ever done it?
on Oct 2, 2018 at 5:34:51 am

[Mark Suszko] "Treat every frame like you're handling evidence"

[Mark Suszko] "No "bloopers". No re-takes. "

[Mark Suszko] "You may have to witness very personal activities and moments, things that most people will find embarrassing"

[Mark Suszko] "If you mess up one time, you're done."

So much good stuff here, but I did want to pull out a couple of bullet points.

I'll also add my one and only experience with this, as I observe that the videographer in this case really is like a court reporter -- discretion, invisibility, professionalism, and zero mistakes are the MINIMUM expected of you -- with the additional dimension that Mark mentions, that if you leave the slightest opening for it, one team of lawyers will come after you, guns blazing.

Mess up badly enough, and you'll be the subject of a lawsuit yourself, when the other team of lawyers sues you for malpractice that blew up their client's defense.

The big thing for me was that it can be draining to be in the room for these. There are almost never any happy people in the room, and some of them can be in considerable physical or emotional pain.

I was hired for one of these at the recommendation a professional acquaintance -- hardly a friend, but we were both in the Rotary and Chamber of Commerce, had some friends in common, etc., and I had a reputation for taking my work seriously (not a common thing for craftsfolk in this part of the world), so he had his lawyer call me. They knew that the other side was hiring a videographer, so he wanted "one of his own" to make sure that there was no monkey business.

I think he thought his case was a slam dunk, but the other side's lawyer eviscerated his professional standing before they even got to the merits. Eviscerated.

I was doing my level best not to listen to the details. Foremost, it was none of my business, and I was sweating bullets to make sure that nothing went wrong with my recording, which I knew was going to be evaluated not only against the other videographer, but also a court reporter -- yep, two court reporters and a videographer. That's how high the temperature was running in the room. I didn't get the sense that there was world-record money on the line -- nothing like the cases Mark was talking about -- as much as the sense of people being seriously, seriously upset.

But really, I didn't want to know. I didn't know this guy all that well, and this was surely one of the worst days of his career. One can only hope for this fellow and his clients that it was the worst day of his career. It was that bad.

So I honestly don't have any idea if my acquaintance was the plaintiff or the defendant, and I sure don't know how it was resolved, but man, he didn't exactly look me in the eye when he thanked me for coming, and I wasn't thrilled about sending the guy a bill for documenting his getting chewed up and spit out so thoroughly...but of course I did, and of course he paid it the same day, and of course we consciously maintained exactly the same level of relationship forever and ever after, no more intimate and no less cordial, because of course, it was just business, and it was a small town, and sometimes you see things you'd rather not, and sometimes people see you in positions you'd rather not be seen in, but whaddya gonna do, amirite?

(I'm keeping this vague on purpose of course, but you should know that it was a professional matter, and nothing that involved the kinds of improprieties one hears about these days. I can also easily imagine having to record testimony vastly more distressing than anything I saw, which really does have to enter into your consideration of whether or not this work you care to undertake on a regular basis.)

Even if I didn't know the guy, and even at that ultimately minor amount of trauma, I never wanted to be in a room of that temperature again. Huge amount of adrenaline in there. It was super easy money for me, and somebody's gonna make that dough doing perfectly honorable work, but that was my last time doing it.

My guy's attorney was pleased with my work, my price, and my comportment (which, underscoring Mark's point again, MATTERS A LOT), and tried to engage me for other gigs. After the second offer, I told him no need to ask again. I've got a lot of respect for anyone with the fortitude to do this work, but I was reminded once again what a delicate flower I am. LOL

So that would be my additional advice. Be ready to stand in a room for hours on the worst day of people's lives, at best watching them reliving the worst day of their lives in front of hostile strangers, and do your job flawlessly, while keeping your empathy to yourself.

That said, there need to be people out there doing the job with gravity and dignity, who can also do it perfectly, every time. If that's you, go for it. You just have to be the videographer you'd want pointing a camera at you on the second worst day of your life.

Piece of cake, right? 😎

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Mark Suszko
Re: Lawsuit day in the life video work -ever done it?
on Oct 2, 2018 at 4:58:28 pm
Last Edited By Mark Suszko on Oct 2, 2018 at 5:02:11 pm

It sounds more like you were recording a deposition. And I've done those too. In one way, it was some of the easiest money I ever made, at the time. Locked-off medium shot in a board room, just change the VHS tapes every 2 hours, make sure the audio is good and that there's an analog clock with a second hand somewhere in the shot... this was back in the very early 80's...

While I can tell your experience was tense, shooting DITL or prospectus videos on location is a bit different.

One malpractice case I worked on, at the time it was for a record amount. Case of a birth delivery gone wrong, and the kid got brain damage. Pretty severe. Only, not easy to figure out what the kid's level of awareness was, since they were paraplegic, nearly quadriplegic, very little motor function, and unable to verbalize. The issue was how much money the award was going to be, in terms of the costs of supporting this child for whatever their natural life span was going to be, and the costs of the very intense therapy involved in seeing to the kid's cognitive needs, as well as physical. The opposition's argument was that the kid had no higher brain function so there was no point in awarding extra money for tutoring, etc.

But how do you know? How do you know how much cognition is in a toddler's mind when he's locked into an unresponsive body?

This is the part of the story that really stays with me:

The family was working with the Rehab Institute of Chicago, one of the world's best. Their techs had come up with a communication system that used what the kid could still control, which was his eyes. And it was a real swords-into-plowshares moment, which grabbed me. They basically hacked a version of the helmet-based gun cuing system from the Apache attack helicopter, which was new tech at the time, and turned it into a communication device for the child.

It was built into a pair of eyeglass frames: an Infra-red laser LED bounced a beam off the eyeballs to track eye movement. In the Apache, this tech let a gunner aim a turret-mounted machine cannon by just -looking- at a target. The clear lenses on the kid's glasses had little icons in a circle around the periphery of each lens: the icons represented things like yes/no, hot/ cold/ hungry, thirsty, pain/no pain... numbers and letters. Even a little ghost (the kid liked stories about ghosts). It was cabled to an early Macintosh, running custom code, all strapped into his wheelchair. Reading the eye movements and blinks, the computer gave the kid a voice.

Yeah, same one as Stephen Hawking's.

So we're there to document the physical care the kid has to get every day, the changing, the washing, catheterization, urine bag change-out, the dressing, the feeding... that's pretty intense stuff, very private, you have to show it while trying to not be obtrusive or show an angle that's overly dramatic or embarrassing... then once the kid was set up in his chair, we documented the process of testing this coms rig, demonstrating that the kid was aware and able to communicate, and to what level. Watching him smile and tell his mom: "I love you, mom" using his eyes... well, I only made day rate on that job, but I'll never forget the job satisfaction I got from the assignment.

It was also a technical challenge, in that we had to observe the testing of the kid without being seen by him, which would have distracted him too much, and called the entire operation into question. Because the other side looks for any reason to disqualify the video, remember. Our rigs were primitive, big and clunky; Ikegami HL79's and u-matic portable decks. My boss was at wits' end on how to do it, wishing he had a camera blind of some sort, or a one-way mirror. I had an inspiration, and said we needed *two* mirrors... we rigged up a kind of periscope using gaff tape, two mirrors we found in the house, and some auto-poles, rigged in vertical mode, so we could shoot from behind the kid, out of his sight, while the lens could still see him from the front, by shooting telephoto and bouncing thru the mirrors. Worked better than expected. The boss was super-impressed by my improvisation. Yeah, I felt I earned my money that day.

More to the point of the case, thru the use of the eyeglass device, experts were then able to evaluate the kid's cognitive abilities and determine that yes, he was aware... he -could- be taught and educated, at least to a high school level, maybe more. And so the jury award or settlement money went up substantially, not just to pay for what had already been achieved, but to pay for the expensive tutoring and therapy that would improve the child's quality of life, allow them to interact with the family, and to help take the eyeglass system from lab prototype to something reliable and simple enough for their daily home use... and coincidentally, to help further develop the technology, so it could help others as well.

Another case I worked on was related to discrimination against the handicapped. It was a more straight-ahead DITL job to show all the little things that pop up to hinder a chair-bound individual in getting thru their day and going to work. She was the victim of a prom night car crash by a drunk driver. Left her paraplegic. Basically an ADA accommodation case, we were documenting all the bumps and barriers that the award money would go to eliminating or mitigating, from widening doors and adding motorized openers/closers, to re-doing the kitchen and bathroom to accommodate a chair-bound person's height and reach, and making modifications to the workplace, back when ADA was a new idea. Again, this was a case where once the other side's lawyers saw what a jury was going to see, they quickly settled, and the plaintiff got what they needed to live their life.

They're not all happy endings, though. On one case I worked, it was a unique combination of deposition and DITL/ professional evaluation, to try and show the level of residual mental function in a head injury victim (bike accident).
All I'll say about it is I will NEVER ride without a helmet.


So yeah the stakes are high. The money's OK. Not great, but OK. The sense of personal growth and job satisfaction is very high, though... this is not about using your craft to talk people into changing their brand of toothpaste. The job changes lives. And it changes you.

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Tim Wilson
Re: Lawsuit day in the life video work -ever done it?
on Oct 17, 2018 at 4:28:38 pm

[Mark Suszko] "The job changes lives. And it changes you."

One of the best posts in the history of the COW, Mark! Thanks so much for your insights into the job, including some crazy cool production tips. More important, thanks for the reminder that, among the drudgery of troubleshooting that support forums are necessarily built around, the work we do on the other side of the workflow issues can mean something.

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