Catch Me If You Can: David Freid

A 60-second tour of Jerusalem helped land photograher and videographer David Freid a gig on MTV's Catfish. The trick, he says, is finding a visually compelling way of translating the virtual relationships of the show's subjects from the desktop screen to television, maintaining the integrity of the story. 

Last year, millions of viewers switched their televisions to MTV to tune into the weekly docudrama Catfish. The show, which is currently in its second season, follows the online relationships of an unsuspecting victim who has fallen in love with a “catfish,” a person who creates a false identity online and pretends to be someone they are not.

Among the team behind the show is David Freid. From searching for the catfish and their victims to recreating their conversations on screen, Freid’s been a part of it all. We caught up with the Los Angeles freelancer who walked us through the details of creating the show. He also shared his tips for making a living as a freelance photographer/videographer in today’s entertainment world.

GIM: Tell us about your involvement with Catfish. What was your job title?

David Freid: I worked in various functions within the story department. There really isn’t an appropriate title for what I did because it’s a unique position to Catfish that doesn’t exist on other shows. My working title for season 1 was story photographer, and season 2, graphics DP. Same job, evolving credit.

GIM: What were your daily responsibilities in filming the show?

DF: I worked in post-production in the story department. My main responsibility was to create the digital, web-based world of the show. A lot of the story of Catfish plays out online—on Facebook, Google, Skype, dating sites, and anywhere else where people meet without actually meeting. The people on our show communicate through email, chat, and text message, and I helped to turn that world into a visual experience for TV. Specifically, my role involved a mix of photography, videography, graphic design, motion graphics, and editing.

To create our initial look, we modeled our concept after what they created for the original film. The directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, always found an interesting way to show what could otherwise be really boring online content.

Depending on the day, I also spent time combing through our massive song library (it’s MTV after all), or helping out the story producers by looking through hours and hours of raw footage from the shoot, and creating string-outs of select clips on AVID for the editors to work into an episode.

GIM: How did you become involved with Catfish?

DF: Brian [Murphy], a close friend of mine from college, is the show’s supervising producer. We’ve worked together several times in the past, including a trip to Iceland a few years ago to film a documentary about elves. Last year, I lived and worked in the Mideast for five months as a photographer, videographer, and mentor for a nonprofit journalism organization called The Tiziano Project (we got nominated for an American Giving Award last year). We worked in Ramallah and Bethlehem in the West Bank, and in Jerusalem. While I was there, I shot and edited a few videos in the region, one of which was an informative, fun, and somewhat eccentric piece called “Jerusalem In 60 Seconds.” Brian watched the video, spent those 60 seconds in Jerusalem, and saw a style in it that he thought would be cool to bring into Catfish. The piece used a mix of videography, voice-over narration, graphic elements, and a whirlwind approach to editing. Brian wanted to try and incorporate some of that into the visual world of the show.

Because it was Catfish’s first season, there was a lot of discovery we had to do in the early stages to figure out the show’s format. An episode of high-energy TV full of standard commercial breaks plays differently than a 90-minute documentary. The story team worked hard to figure out how the structure and tone of each episode would operate, and created a basic master format for each episode along the way. Through a lot of trial and error, we were able to replicate and expand on the visual style of the film.

GIM: Walk us through a typical day on the job for you in filming and putting together the show. 

DF: Each episode features a new Catfish and Victim. Sometimes, an assortment of friends and family also became central to an episode. These characters all needed a visual digital identity and a way to show them communicating.

This is a docu-series, so to answer the question I’ve been asked so many times: all of the people and their stories on Catfish are real. Some of them communicated for months and some for years. We had to think a little abstractly to come up with how we could work in the everyday elements that we all use on our smartphones and laptops to help tell this story. For example, if a couple met on chat through a mutual friend, lived an hour’s drive away from each other, and never met because perhaps the Catfish was hiding a secret that they were not ready yet to reveal, we had to show that in the way that they experienced it.

I might start graphically by creating a login screen, showing the text, enter the fields and the mouse’s curser clicking “login.” This could lead to reading some of their chat communication—usually the juicier the better. If both phrases exist in a sentence, “I love you” was always more interesting then “What are you up to?” These people have gotten to know some version of each other so well, entirely without ever actually meeting, and for most, almost entirely through the written word. So I’d try to come up with some interesting way to show those words on a screen.

Perhaps I’d animate it moving toward the lens, highlighting the most important words as it rolls or maybe show pieces of the phrase in rapid fire sequence: “I. LOVE. YOU,” using the entire screen for each word to help illustrate the impact that it makes on its reader. To show that they lived an hour’s drive away, I might zoom out of a map, and create little icons to represent each party, or show a mocked-up GPS-style driving sequence between their houses. Those are pretty simple examples, and the graphic sequences certainly became more elaborate as the show went on. We tried not to get too redundant.

GIM: What did you do to prep for the show? How did you help bring the visuals to life? 

DF: We loved pixels on the show. Even though most modern HD, retina displays don’t show many pixels, we wanted to see as many as possible. We thought this felt more immersive—like the viewer was brought inside the computer screen. For this we acquired several older computer monitors and television screens, worked with different macro lenses and settings, and tried to work against the ever-popular world of high definition to find as many pixels as possible. There’s something imperfect, gritty, and cool about seeing those pixels. And when incorporated into the handheld, run-and-shoot nature of the show—being suddenly plunged into a digital sequence that also felt a bit raw and matched the feel of the show.

GIM: When you aren’t working on Catfish, what else are you working on?

DF: I’m in the very unpredictable world of freelance, so it changes all the time. A friend described it as “tap dancing on a trap door,” which is a pretty accurate depiction. I’ve been lucky, in spurts, and have been able to keep pretty busy.

I’m currently in pre-production on a film that I’m a producer on that we’ll hopefully be shooting by the beginning of fall. And in my downtime, I’m working on a couple personal projects; a short doc about the street art on the wall between Israel and the West Bank, a photo book, and a script that I’ve had in my head for years. I feel like I need to fulfill my obligation as a resident of Hollywood and write at least one solo feature screenplay.

GIM: What is your educational background?

DF: I studied film and English Creative Writing at USC and Motion Picture Producing at AFI. I had internships and assistant jobs in development at big studios. I shot and created football packages for ESPN and Fox Sports West. I deviated way off path for a couple years and worked in interactive for Disney and DreamWorks Animation, spearheading the Shrek 4 interactive campaign for the client. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a very direct path in life thus far.

I’ve also traveled a lot. This was important to me from an early age. I don’t come from money, so I generally worked as I went along—did the backpacker thing through Europe and various other more exotic places. My very first fancy camera was actually stolen from me on a train in Slovakia. The travel theme has stayed with me, and even when I’m not working, I tend to shoot a lot while I’m abroad. For example, my last big foreign trip was to Peru, to fulfill a lifelong need to see Machu Picchu. This was at least partially inspired by a bad/great 80’s film that took place amongst Inca ruins called Vibes, starring Jeff Goldblum and Cyndi Lauper. You probably haven’t seen it.

Anyway, while I was there I ended up shooting a lot more video than stills. Just for fun, as a momento. And I quickly realized that I was never actually going to be in this video myself, and that it was just going to end up some National Geographic Explorer wannabe with no real evidence of my involvement. I wanted to change that, and the only idea I had, which was not the best idea I’ve ever had, was to dance in front of the camera. I thought this would be funny, and at least I’d see me in my home movie 50 years from now as an active participant in the memory. Even if bad dancing was my active participating.

Anyone whose shot a mountain of HD video knows that it can be quite a time-sucking endeavor to actually sit down and edit something together with it. But if I didn’t I’d just have hundreds of disconnected video clips on a hard drive to remember the trip by, and that just doesn’t make sense. So, in my downtime, I made a little three-minute home movie. I even included my bad dancing. I put it up on Vimeo to share with friends, and somehow a lot more people watched it than I expected would. Even the nation of Peru endorsed it. Twice. They shared it, and suddenly I’m getting really sweet messages from fellow travelers or Peruvians or employers looking for something similar. This from a home movie. And somehow, no one complained about the dancing.

Peruvian Pop from David Freid on Vimeo.

GIM: What are your recommendation for people looking to pursue a career similar to yours?

DF: Do everything. Be persistent. And don’t be a dick.

If you’re lucky or born into some kind of dynasty, and know exactly what you want to do with your whole life while you’re still young, then follow the logical path to get there. But try to learn everything you can about it along the way. Even elements of it you don’t think are important to your role. The more you know about each position on a film or TV show, the better you get at understanding the whole picture. Which makes you better at whatever individual part you want to focus on.

If you’re getting into photography, it’s probably because you have good taste in pictures. Or maybe because your friends double-tap the hell out of your Instagram photos, which means you probably have a good eye for light and composition. Maybe you’re good at capturing people, or getting them to emote something interesting, or maybe you’re just a fearless badass that doesn’t mind getting a little dirty to get the best shot. Either way, you’re going to have to learn the software you’ll need to organize and process those photos. So figure out Photoshop, maybe Lightroom or Aperature. You should also explore video. Learn how to edit. Figure out graphics and text and listen to a lot of music.

Good editing has rhythm to it like a song, and good music is a muse. The more you learn, the more valuable you’ll be to potential employers. A lot of employers in a creative field look for people who are good Swiss Army knives. If you’re considering entering the world of freelance, you’re going to need every skill you can muster and the confidence that comes with practice. Try everything, build a portfolio, and get busy on as many projects as possible so that the law of averages plays out in your favor and you end up with at least a couple really great gigs. And don’t be afraid to stumble. I’ve stumbled into almost every professional thing I’ve done, and some of my best work wasn’t planned.

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