The husband-wife team behind a true crime series have produced a five-part docuseries for Discovery+ and a companion 7-part podcast simultaneously. The TV series, Unraveled: The Real Story of the Long Island Serial Killer, began streaming on Discovery+ streaming platform on March 9th, and the podcast, which launched ahead of the series and shares its name, is currently charting at #8 across all US podcasts.
Veteran true crime documentarians Biagio Messina & Joke Fincioen of Joke Productions talked about their production workflow on this unique project, which includes over 35 hours of podcast content and 10 hours of television, and how they used Adobe Premiere Pro and the Essential Sound panel to make it all happen.
PH: Hi Biagio + Joke, how are you? How has the way you work changed over the past year?
Biagio + Joke: Like everyone else in the world, we’ve had to adapt our workflow due to the Covid situation. We’ve always been a nimble company, and that background helped us to react quickly to the situation. It was a lot like going back to our early days editing actor demo reels out of our tiny, Hollywood one-bedroom apartment. You’re suddenly copying footage to lots of drives and figuring out creative ways to keep everything in sync. At one point I was personally doing a bunch of finishing on our show Deadly Recall from our second bedroom. Of course, suddenly Zoom meetings were a big part of the whole routine. One thing we learned is that residential internet speeds are very hit and miss. We had explored doing some editing using web/proxy based solutions, but ran into trouble when an editor’s residential internet would run unreliably. So you just assume everything will go wrong, have backup plans for your backup plans, and buy a lot of hand sanitizer.
PH: What did “breaking” into the industry look like for you? Did you always know you wanted to work in this industry?
Biagio + Joke: Breaking in was a huge journey full of question marks. Joke was from Belgium, I was from Cleveland, and we didn’t know anyone in the industry. So we started out by making anything we could. We shot full 22 minute pilots that we also edited, soundmixed, and color corrected ourselves. We learned After Effects at a time when it was still a very niche program, and used it to create graphics that looked like they belonged on TV. But how would we get anyone to see them?
It was still the very early days of the internet, there was no Facebook, Linkedin, no social media – in our case, I think that actually made things easier. People couldn’t just “Google” you and so sometimes it made getting a meeting with someone way out of your league just a little easier. In the end, back then, our best course of action was to take industry classes from working professionals teaching at the UCLA Extension program and similar, and then reach out to them afterwards asking for a meeting. We did it by fax – and for some reason that always seemed to work. I guess people were getting less faxes and more emails at the time, so a fax stood out more!
When we did finally get those tapes (they were still VHS back then!) to people to see, the response was huge. They couldn’t believe that we’d made the pilots ourselves. However, no one really knew what to do with us – we were a couple kids making pilots that looked like they cost six figures at the time, but we’d made them for like 50 bucks. So it wasn’t like people were going to trust us with a multi-million dollar budget. Eventually, it was Rasha Drachkovitch at 44 Blue who took a chance on us as producer/directors on a show we’d also cut the pitch reel for. That lead to show-running gigs on projects like Beauty and the Geek, which finally allowed us to then launch our own production company.
These days, it can be pretty hard breaking in. We run the free podcast and website Producing Unscripted (https://producingunscripted.com) aimed at breaking down how the business works, and teaching people how to pitch concepts. It’s over 100 episodes of us just sharing everything we’ve learned – and are still learning – about making it in this crazy business. It’s what we wish we would’ve found 20 years ago.
PH: Let’s talk about the TV series, Unraveled: The Real Story of the Long Island Serial Killer. How did you two get involved with this project?
Biagio + Joke: When Alexis Linkletter first told us there might be something to this story, Joke and Alexis spent a good few years researching it together. As the story started to take shape, I began working on the pitch reel (like a movie trailer, but for a documentary series.) We did a lot of interviews over Skype, and the people were just mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe how deep the story seemed to go.
We knew we wanted the series to have a premium feel, and to elevate those screen captured videos we played them on laptops and filmed the playback using slow dolly moves. It helped to make the Skype footage feel more cinematic, and the reel was well-received by our agents and those we pitched. I finished that original tape in 2017, so that gives you an idea of how long it can take to go from seed idea to actually premiering on TV.
PH: This is a unique project. What was your production workflow like?
Biagio + Joke: Like Joke points out, it’s definitely a jigsaw puzzle. Joke has an excellent big picture overview of what’s going on in the marco, and that allows me to often dive into the micro, whether it be helping on an edit, experimenting with the podcast, or writing some of the music for the show. We’re both still very hands-on, and I think that “do it yourself” mentality that launched our careers keeps us sane when we’re jumping from one detail to the next at an often frantic rate.
PH: What were some of the challenges blending podcast and television content to tell a cohesive story?
Biagio + Joke: Creatively, it’s really important that both the podcast and the TV series stand on their own. We didn’t want it to feel like you had to listen to the podcast in order to “get” the TV show, and vice-versa. So it’s important to think of the TV portion as being a complete, satisfying two hours in itself, and structuring the podcast to be the “deep dive” that goes into the fascinating nooks and crannies you can never get to in the limited space you have on television.
Technically, the beginning of the process had some speed bumps. Our original podcast editor, who would also be mixing the project, did not work in an Adobe program. So there were translation issues as we tried to keep projects in sync, which included all the podcast audio as well as every bit of audio from the TV series itself. Finally, after a few episodes, we made the switch to go 100% Adobe Premiere for editing both the series and the podcast. It made a world of difference, and since making that change things have gone very smoothly.
PH: Can you talk about your experience with Adobe Premiere Pro? How did it help with this project?
Biagio + Joke: I started editing on AVID years ago, and switched to FCP version 1 when it came out. Back then it was so much easier for what we did. After all, this was the very early 2000s, and unscripted TV producers hadn’t yet really jumped in to creating their own graphics, color correcting, etc. FCP, combined with After Effects, made it easy, and we built the early part of our career that way. We were on that until it died with FCP 7, and made the move to Premiere. In the very beginning, it was a hard transition, but I give so much credit to Adobe. They visited our offices, learned what it was that companies like ours needed, and made changes to Premiere based on our requests. Being a small company, and not one of the other “heavy hitters” they were working with, it really meant a lot to us that they cared.
Within a few years we were 100% Adobe, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. We’d always made After Effects and Cinema 4D a heavy part of our post production anyway, and keeping everything pure Adobe makes a lot of sense. I’m also a big fan of the Adobe suite in general because I feel like, while it certainly works as a “pipeline” tool, it’s really built for creatives. Our editors who also like and know After Effects or Audition can hope over and try things out – and we encourage that.
Our early cuts have a lot more graphics and visual effects in them than the shows we made coming up ever did. That flexibility also means if I want to re-edit something in the middle of color correction, or change a music cue after we’re “locked” it’s not big deal. Years ago, working at other companies, the line producer would just look at us and say, “No, we’re locked, nothing changes.” Now we just make the changes we want, whenever we want, with minimal downtime or consequences. Finally, being a company owner who also edits and creates motion graphics, I have the ability to personally make changes very late in the game without going over budget or asking for crazy overtime from our creative team. Then if anything goes wrong it’s on me!
On this project in particular, Premiere saved the day when it came to having one unified way to edit both the TV show and the podcast, as well as sound-mixing the latter. Story trumps everything, and these podcasts are about live investigations where we often learn new things at the very last minute. By staying all Premiere and making heavy use of the Essential Sound Panel, we can have a great sounding mix from the jump and make changes the day before we go live if we need to.
I’m also a big fan of the Audio Track Mixer in Premiere and think it’s often overlooked. It’s a mixing powerhouse, and probably underutilized by most Premiere users. We use it to add a little bit of multi-band compression on the podcast final output, just using the stock Adobe plugins which sound really good. When editing pitch tapes I opt for the Audio Track Mixer over the Essential Sound panel, and create subgroups for dialogue, music, etc. It’s really powerful.
PH: What’s your experience been like working as a husband-wife team?
Biagio + Joke: Joke’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all had their own businesses together, so for her working with a spouse was the only way she ever pictured her life. On the other hand, my parents divorced when I was pretty young, and it had a deep effect on me. I was honestly scared about finding someone to marry – yet alone run a business with! I met Joke at UCLA and I was instantly smitten. She took a little longer to get there romantically (I have zero game.) But we started working together before we ever dated, and produced a 16 millimeter feature film between junior and senior year with money I won on a gameshow, and Joke’s own personal savings. Going through that experience pretty much showed us we could survive anything. After that, working together became second nature. Luckily for me, Joke also decided I might just be the one for her, and we got married.
That all happened before we were working professionally in the industry. By the time we were making shows like Beauty and the Geek and Scream Queens, which sometimes had us working together 20 hours a day, it was second nature to spend so much time together. We were just used to it, both personally and professionally.
Also, having your own company, and staying independently owned as we are, is a pretty insane lifestyle. There is no safety net, no big corporation to lean on if things go south. If something goes wrong, you go bankrupt. That’s just how it works. It requires an extremely high tolerance for risk – and I don’t know how I would do it without her. Taking on that challenge together with your spouse seems far more doable than doing it alone. I certainly couldn’t do it without Joke, and honestly, wouldn’t want to. Having her as my wife, and now having kids together, are the most important things in my life. If we didn’t do this together, we’d both lose out on a lot of special times. So I would not have it any other way. It was our 20th wedding anniversary last month, and I’m looking forward to at least 100 more (go science!)
PH: Do you think we can expect this hybrid model of storytelling (podcasting and television) to be more common in the future?
Biagio + Joke: Yes – and certainly we hope to produce a lot more of it. It’s a brilliant way to fully explore a story. Plus, the podcast gives us the opportunity to try new storytelling techniques, explore angles we’d never have time for on a TV show, and also works as a great tool to raise awareness for the TV series.