Freemark Abbey: A Study in Style

Background

Freemark Abbey is to California wine what Tiffany is to jewelry: timeless, classic, and synonymous with quality.

With roots dating back to the 1880s, Freemark Abbey is a storied Napa Valley winery with a storied history. It was founded by Josephine Tychson, the second woman in Napa Valley history to construct and operate a winery. It was also the only California winery to showcase two wines at the Judgment of Paris, the famous wine competition pitting California wines against French wines in 1976. Both of Freemark Abbey’s submissions placed in the top 10, catapulting the small vineyard onto the world winemaker stage. 


In 2020, Freemark Abbey came full circle by hiring Kristy Melton as their winemaker, the first female winemaker since Josephine Tychson crushed her first grapes in the fall of 1886.

In an effort to honor its history while celebrating its future, Freemark Abbey’s parent company, Jackson Family Wines, reached out to Slow Clap, to produce a series of short documentaries highlighting the winery’s rich heritage and continued commitment to creating exceptional wines. Slow Clap had previously produced a brand story video for La Crema, another member of Jackson Family Wines’ impressive portfolio of wineries, and the team was excited for an opportunity to get out of San Francisco and engage in video production in Napa Valley.

 

“[Working with Slow Clap] was great – they were very professional, responsive, and open to ideas.”

– Nikita Kubiak, Digital Marketing Director at Jackson Family Wines

Approach

One of Freemark Abbey’s vineyards in Napa Valley.

Freemark Abbey wanted to focus on a number of topics spanning the entire history of the winery. In order to accomplish this without overwhelming their audience, they decided that five short videos would be the ideal approach. Slow Clap worked with the Freemark Abbey team to determine the five chapters of the story, starting with the founding of Freemark Abbey in 1886, to the fateful Judgment of Paris 100 years later, ending with present-day and female winemaker Kristy Melton at the helm. 

Challenges

Freemark Abbey has a distinctive style for its interior brand photography: dramatic, elegant, and cinematic. It is achieved with a soft, large light source that dramatically falls off the background, resulting in a high-contrast look and a background that fades to black. 


Freemark Abbey’s Distinctive Look

It was important that Slow Clap’s interior shots matched the distinct look and feel that had been carefully crafted by the Freemark Abbey team. 

This visual style is challenging to pull off in a documentary-style video production because it requires precision and control in a filming environment that is often more spontaneous, scrappy, and tends to utilize the available light in a subject’s natural surroundings.

“With a scripted piece, you have the full control and ability to do whatever you want. Maybe you’re working with actors on a stage; you can bring in as many lights as you want, you can take the time you need to get the shots you need. With a doc-style piece, controlling it with that much nuance can stifle the creatives and the story itself. You risk the authenticity of the footage. So you want to walk a fine line between getting that heightened visual feel, getting the right lights in there while using as few lights as possible and keeping the crew as small as possible in order to capture authentic, uninterrupted moments and performances.”

– Dan Lichtenberg, Creative Director, Slow Clap 

In order to achieve this nuanced lighting style with a small footprint of equipment and crew members, Slow Clap began by designing a detailed lighting plan that outlined the equipment, how it would be used, and its precise placement on set. 

A page from Slow Clap’s lighting plan detailing the lighting setup for one of the interview setups.


The view from behind the camera

Slow Clap’s production team determined the ideal lighting scheme for the interview shots would  entail a large, 600-watt light to illuminate the subject, a 200-watt rim light to cast light on the back of the subject and create separation from the background, and a 200-watt light to illuminate the wine barrels incorporated into the background. 


The resulting interview setup.

In addition to the lights, the production team utilized a variety of modifiers such as grids, snoots and flags to control and block the light, creating what is known as “negative fill.”



“Negative Fill is removing light or creating shadow in an image. When you light something,  it’s important to think about what you want to light and how you want to shape it. You won’t be able to shape light in a pleasing way without negative fill.”

 Jake Richard, Camera Operator, Slow Clap  

The fill side of the subject’s face is a dramatic falloff from bright to dark, which compliments Freemark Abbey’s visual brand identity – historic, elevated, and refined. 

Slow Clap also worked with Freemark Abbey to acquire the wine cellar as a filming location; a large space with a dearth of natural light. This location made it much easier for the team to control the surroundings and successfully pull off the lighting plan. 


The Freemark Abbey Wine Cellar

Just as a bottle of wine is only as good as the grapes used in its production, a series of wine videos aren’t complete without showcasing the bucolic vineyards where the grapes are produced. Instead of trying to replicate the dramatic interior lighting, Slow Clap took a page out of the book of Missy Elliott: they flipped it and reversed it:

“The visual style we came up with was sort of the inverse of what our interiors were. Our subjects were backlit, sort of silhouetted, whereas the interior is where the subjects were basically the only thing that was fully exposed and the background falls away. With the exteriors, the background was the main thing that was properly exposed and the subjects almost fall away into silhouette.”

– Dan Lichtenberg, Creative Director, Slow Clap

In order to achieve this look, Slow Clap filmed all of the outdoor scenes during golden hour, the last hour before sunset and the hour after sunrise, which ensured the sun was close to the horizon. The subjects were then placed with their backs to the sun to achieve the semi-silhouetted look. 


Filming on the grounds of Freemark Abbey

The result was an elegant contrasting image to complement the interior scenes.


An outdoor shoot featuring the well-lit background and semi-silhouetted subject

 

Result 

Thanks to careful planning and vision, Slow Clap was able to successfully deliver five docustyle vignettes that were visually and stylistically on brand for Freemark Abbey. The videos won Double Gold in the 2022 Barleycorn Award video category and a Gold Telly Award in the Short Documentary Branded Content category.

In addition to video accolades, the John Barleycorn Awards, which honor innovative work in the wine and spirits industry, tapped Slow Clap as the 2022 marketer of the year

 

“The videos were well received. They were very informative and high-quality, and they told the Freemark Abbey story well. We have the videos across our website and run paid ad campaigns utilizing cut-downs of the long-form video. These helped drive brand awareness and engagement.”

– Nikita Kubiak, Digital Marketing Director at Jackson Family Wines

Meet Slow Clap’s Post-Production and Camera Manager: Jake Richard

Get to know Jake a bit better with our quick Q&A interview.

Introduce yourself!

Hi! My name is Jake Richard. I grew up bouncing around from Southern California to the Bay Area and in between but decided to settle in the Bay. I have attended classes at the Academy of Art and City College of San Francisco.

What’s your role? What made you gravitate towards this craft?

I am the Post-Production and Camera Manager which means that I am responsible for all of the footage and projects we take on, making sure it is safely ingested on our systems and that it is prepped and ready for an editor to begin work. I also manage the company’s equipment making sure that it all remains in working order and is ready to use on the next shoot. I always had a love for filmmaking and wanted to get a deeper understanding of the full processes it takes to make something great. 

What’s your prior experience? What made you interested in joining Slow Clap?

I started at Slow Clap as a production assistant with no experience and did my best to work my way up. My main goal was to learn something new every day when I started to work here, and I couldn’t imagine where it has led me to today. My interest in Slow Clap was always how authentic and human the approach to storytelling was. 

Favorite Film? What am I watching?

It’s always so hard to pick a favorite film, but a couple of my favorites from childhood are Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Currently, I am watching the Sopranos for the first time. 

Any Hobbies?

I am a fan of going to the movies and I try to stay up to date on the latest shows. I also enjoy relaxing with my friends and playing video games. Most of the time I can be found training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in my off time. I have been doing it for almost 8 years and have recently received my brown belt.  

Lastly, favorite project you’ve worked on?

This is hard because I love all of our videos. Some of my favorite projects I have worked on are the Building the Future videos we did for Github which was one large scripted video and 3 doc-style videos. The scripted video was the first big production I had worked on, and the doc-style videos were all fun to travel and work for. Others include the Juror Orientation video which I think has the biggest audience (albeit a captive one) of any video I have worked on and Earl’s Story for Blue Shield which was one of the first projects I had worked on. Most recently, I am really proud of how the Freemark Abbey videos turned out for Jackson Family Wines which we have already won a few awards for. 

La Crema Winery’s 40th Anniversary

Over the past few years, Slow Clap has grown a partnership with Jackson Family Wines that began with small, one-off projects for the company’s different wineries, such as Kendall-Jackson, Nielsen, Vérité, and others. In the Summer of 2019, that relationship got serious. JFW asked us to create a marketing video that celebrated the 40th anniversary of La Crema Winery, digging into the history books and origin stories of Pinot Noir in California.

Approach

The JFW marketing team wanted to approach this video from both the historic and educational perspectives but also wanted to ensure the video was entertaining for wine enthusiasts. Dan Sutton, Brand Manager of JFW, knew the exact voices that needed to be featured in this video, such as Rod Burglund, the founder of La Crema, and Jenny Jackson Hartford, Co-Proprietor of JFW. To round out the story, we recommended adding a third-party perspective. We often suggest adding the voice of an industry expert, to create a sense of weight and objectiveness in the story. Dan Berger, a top wine critic, was more than excited to talk about La Crema’s place in history.

 


Execution

Pre-Production

Forty years is a lot to cover in a three-minute video. In addition to a surplus of research, our team conducted pre-interviews with the video’s subjects to pinpoint key moments in La Crema’s history that would speak to the two different target audiences of this video. Using this background research as a guide, we developed a mood board, a shot list, and a creative brief.

Crew + Equipment

Directing and producing was Slow Clap’s Dan Lichtenberg, and logistics were managed by associate producer Nicole B Wilson. Leading the camera department was Alan Sanchez, and working as our assistant camera and grip was Jake Richard and Tomaso Semenzato.

We wanted to create a larger than life feel for this forty-year story, so we decided to use a motion control camera system to add some drama to our interviews. To achieve this, we used the Rhino Arc, which tracked our subject on loop, keeping her or him center frame with a fluid, buttery camera move.

 

During this marathon three day shoot, we filmed in several locations, including La Crema’s production facility and barrel room, the Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard, and La Crema’s Healdsburg tasting room. Each location provided a richness to the history of the winery, as well as a variety of elegant backgrounds for interviews and b-roll.

 

Like all productions, there were challenges, and one of the major challenges we encountered on this production was time. We filmed on-site for three days, spread out over the course of several weeks. But unfortunately, the grapes were not hanging from the vine… so, we had to use several shots from our archive of footage shot with JFW to create some movie magic. Another major snag was the drone footage we needed to capture. The vineyards are in the flight path of the regional airport, so we actually had to get FAA approval to fly in a “no-flight zone.” Thankfully, the results of these efforts were worth it.

We worked with our editor, Natalia Lopatina, to begin editing the video in between filming in order to create the story, select broll, and start figuring out music and tone. Once our crew completed their second day of filming our editor work meticulously alongside our Creative Director, and the La Crema team to complete the video.

“The feedback from the organization was very positive… this video has given us a ‘north star’ on the story for the brand.” – Dan Sutton, Brand Manager, JFW


Results

The video premiered at a general sales meeting event in late July 2019. In early August, Safeway, one of JFW’s biggest retail partners, decided to feature the video in the wine aisles in their California stores.

“The video was really well received at our GSM event. It hit all the marketing and selling points, and recieved lots of applause.” – Dan Sutton, Brand Manager, JFW

Collaboration, flexibility, and trust are the keys to any successful partnership. Over the past few years, we gained the trust of the JFW team and got to know the people behind the brands. We fostered that relationship and were able to really show them the value of working with Slow Clap. As a result, we were able to craft a beautiful story to celebrate 40 years and beyond.